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Snowshoe running: your new favourite winter sport

Resident snowshoe running expert Derrick Spafford tells us everything we need to know about the unique sport

Photo by: Rob Whelan

Winter is a tough season for runners. If you’re not sliding around on icy or slushy sidewalks, then you’re high-stepping through the snow on the trails. The good news is, there’s a better way. If you’re lucky enough to live near some snow-covered trails or parks, snowshoe running could be the solution to your winter running struggles. Curious about how to get started? We spoke with our resident Canadian snowshoe running expert, Derrick Spafford, to learn everything you need to know about the sport.

Photo: Rob Whelan

Should you avoid trail running in the winter?

Spafford has been a runner his entire life and has done it all — road, track, trail, and now ultrarunning. He always enjoyed trail running, but like many others, found it challenging in the winter months when the snow covered the ground at his home in Yarker, Ont. When he learned of the existence of running snowshoes, he found himself a pair and never looked back.

That was nearly 20 years ago, and at the time, there were very few opportunities for snowshoe races in Canada. Spafford decided to put his own series together, and the sport began to grow. “Being able to get out on the same trail that you run all summer, just be able to get back out in nature — it’s a very pure sport,” he says. “If you enjoy the trails, there’s just no better way to train through the winter.”

As a bonus, Spafford says running on snowshoes all winter long helps to develop strength that you can take with you into the spring racing season. “Most winters, as long as we had good snow, I’d be doing most of my runs on snowshoes,” he says. “I found it helped develop strength so come spring season I was stronger for longer races.”

Running vs. snowshoe running

Photo: Greg Leskien

The main difference, of course, is that you’re wearing snowshoes, which are slightly heavier and force you to take a wider stance when you run. “The snowshoes that you get now are super lightweight,” says Spafford. “They’re narrower, and nothing like the tennis rackets you used to wear.”

Spafford says most runners find the transition to snowshoe running to be pretty comfortable, but just like with moving from the roads to the trails, you should expect to run slower. “If you’re running on the roads, you might be able to run four-minute kilometres, if you’re running on a trail you might slow down by a minute, if you’re running on snowshoes on a trail you might slow down by another minute per kilometre,” he says.

Photo: Greg Leskien

He adds, however, that the type of snowshoe you’re wearing is important. A hiking snowshoe will feel like you’re trying to run in hiking boots, but get your feet into a pair of running-specific snowshoes (paired with a good, water-proof trail running shoe) and you’re likely to have much more success. “It’ll be like putting on a racing flat,” says Spafford.

Running snowshoes are a bit pricey, but the good news is, you should be able to wear them for several seasons, unlike running shoes, which have to be replaced multiple times per year. A good pair of running snowshoes will typically cost around $250-$350 range. To learn more about running snowshoes, click here.

Tips to get started

Photo: Rob Whelan

Spafford recommends runners do a bit of strength training before getting into snowshoe running, since it is slightly more demanding compared to running on the roads. “You can just go out and try it, but if you do a little prep work ahead of time it’ll make it easier,” he says. Exercises to strengthen your legs, like squats and lunges work well, and he also recommends hopping on the elliptical machine at the gym, since it does a great job at mimicking the motion of snowshoe running.

He also suggests starting out by walking in your running snowshoes, then progressing to an easy jog before getting into a more comfortable running stride in the first five to 10 minutes of your run. “Don’t think about pace per mile or pace per kilometre,” says Spafford. “Just think about going out and getting in the time on your legs.”

For example, if you typically run five kilometres in a day and it takes you 30 minutes, when you go snowshoe running, aim to run for 30 minutes, rather than trying to hit a specific distance. That will give you the same type of workout you’d get on a normal run.

DION Ontario snowshoe running series

Photo: Greg Leskien

4 ways to use winter as a training tool

For any Ontario-area runners who are interested in getting into snowshoe running, Spafford organizes a series of races that takes place in various locations across the province every winter. Currently, there are six events in areas like Cornwall, Mount Hope and Hammond, Ont., among others. Unfortunately, the next two races in the series, which would have taken place in Kingston and Prince Edward County, had to be cancelled due to COVID-19, but he hopes the later-season races will still be able to take place.

Distances range from four kilometres to 10 kilometres. To learn more or to register, check out the website here.